The Second Amendment Is About Rifles Not Racism

Below is my column on academic work claiming that the Second Amendment is a relic of slavery. The reframing of the debate follows a familiar pattern in academia. Indeed, the same type of sweeping (and unchallenged) generalities was used recently to declare Olympic surfing a relic of American imperialism. The framing of such claims often precede any search for the facts. However, academics know that there is an eager and unquestioning audience for such publications. Conversely, those academics challenging such claims risk isolation and shunning in today’s intolerant environment. What is most striking about this latest claim is that it is directly and comprehensively contradicted by historical sources. Yet, there are relatively few academics who have publicly challenged the claims as media heralds the theory as a type of breakthrough publication. As discussed earlier, the theory is neither new nor well-founded.

Here is the column:

Racism seems to be the most common denominator of today’s political controversies. Issues long debated over other grounds — the Senate’s filibuster rulevoter ID laws, even standardized testingmathstatistics and meritocracy — have all been reframed as a choice between racism and equality.

The reframing of such issues in racial terms removes any need to respond to other issues — and it relieves advocates of defending the racism charge. It may be the ultimate conversation stopper — but that advantage is precisely its weakness, particularly when racist roots are less than evident.

The latest example comes from the American Civil Liberties Union, which posted a discussion of how the Second Amendment is a product of racism. Supporting commentary explained how “Anti-Blackness determined the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and has informed the unequal and racist application of gun laws.”

Some media and legal commentators have fawned over a new book, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” by Dr. Carol Anderson, chair of Emory University’s Black Studies Department. Anderson claims the Second Amendment “was designed and has consistently been constructed to keep African Americans powerless and vulnerable.” In interviews with media outlets like CNN and NPR, her theory was not challenged on the Second Amendment’s history or purpose, despite overwhelming (and largely ignored) evidence to the contrary. Instead, NPR breathlessly billed its interview as “Historian Carol Anderson Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The Second Amendment.”

Slavery was a matter discussed both at the Declaration of Independence and during the Constitutional debates. However, the suggestion that it was a primary motivation for the Second Amendment is utter nonsense.

States opposed to slavery, like Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island, had precursor state constitutional provisions recognizing the right to bear arms. In his famous 1770 defense of Capt. Thomas Preston in the Boston Massacre trial, John Adams declared that British soldiers had a right to defend themselves since “here every private person is authorized to arm himself.” His second cousin and co-Founding Father, Samuel Adams, was vehemently anti-slavery and equally supportive of the right to bear arms.

Guns were viewed as essential in much of America, which was then a frontier nation, needed for food — but also to protect a free people from tyranny and other threats. (The Minutemen at Concord, after all, were not running to a Klan meeting in 1775.) Law enforcement was relatively scarce at the time, even in the more populous states — but, of course, some writers today claim the first police departments were products of slavery, too, used to enforce that system and to recapture escaped slaves.

The latest claim is reminiscent of the controversy over “The 1619 Project” produced by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who claimed the American Revolution was motivated in large part to preserve slavery. Hannah-Jones clearly came up with her framing before looking at the facts, which directly contradict her claim. While at least one historian objected during the fact-checking process, it was published and only later corrected, along with other errors.

The Second Amendment claim is equally unfounded, but the argument allows for advocates to argue that this original “antiblackness” continues to shape “the unequal and racist application of gun laws.” This argument is maintained despite the fact that a quarter of African Americans are gun owners (compared with 36 percent of whites) and gun sales have been increasing in the African American community. Some African Americans have long viewed guns as an equalizer, including escaped slave and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, in an editorial, heralded the power of “a good revolver, a steady hand.” Gun ownership has a long, fiercely defended tradition in the Black community. Indeed, Ida B. Wells, one of the most prominent anti-lynching activists, declared: “The Winchester Rifle deserves a place of honor in every Black home.”

For decades, the meaning of the Second Amendment wallowed in a debate over whether the right to bear arms is an individual right. Gun-control advocates lost that debate before the Supreme Court in 2008. Now, however, critics can dispense with such long-standing arguments by claiming the amendment is a relic of slavery and a tool of racism. That instantly converts any Second Amendment defenders into advocates not of freedom but of anti-blackness and oppression. It simplifies the argument and silences opposing views.

Indeed, in today’s standard, it is not enough to be non-racist, you must prove yourself to be anti-racist. Yet it is hard to establish yourself as anti-racist if you are defending rules or amendments or countries already decried as being racist. Moreover, if you are trained to view everything through an anti-racist lens, it can become the only discernible option — like the old military adage that “if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

It is even dangerous today to observe that any given legal problem is not a problem of racism. Some are; many are not. But if everything is a product or relic of racism, the “racism” label becomes less notable or less imperative to address.

There is no need to rewrite history. Racism permeates our history, including a war in which hundreds of thousands of many races died to end slavery in this country.

We have continued that struggle through the Civil Rights period and into the current day. But those efforts are hampered, not advanced, by converting all political disputes into zero-sum fights over racism, which leaves little room for debate and even less room for persuasion.

The resulting silence is not evidence of consensus but of intimidation. Racism is real, but it cannot be defeated if it is reduced to a political trump card.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

109 thoughts on “The Second Amendment Is About Rifles Not Racism”

  1. Is one supposed to believe that Article I, Section 8, Clauses 15 and 16, and Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 are also “racist” provisions of the Constitution, deriving from slavery? What about all of the Militia statutes enacted by the Colonies and then the independent States before the Constitution or the Second Amendment were even thought of? (Which, unfortunately, Professor Turley does not mention, although they are the heart of the matter.) Were they all the products of, or meant to support, slavery and racism?

  2. The 9th. & 10th. apply to our right to our weapons just as much as the 2nd. Many forget that. Even if one holds that the 2nd. is unclear, the 9th. & 10th. do not permit the US Tyranny any power over our weapons.

    “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” — 9th.
    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” — 10th.

  3. Banning the ownership of guns, eviscerating the Second Amendment is a relic of slavery!

    “If black people were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which Southern states considered to be necessary for their own safety.

    It would give the person of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union … the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

    And all of this would be done in the fact of the subject of race of the same color, both free and slaves, inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering and safety of the State”. – 
    1856 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Dred Scott v. Sandford

  4. If you make everything racism – nothing is racism.

    If you shout racism about everything – people will quit listening, and you risk, may even cause real racism to increase.

    Prof. Turley failed to note – most 2nd Amendment jurisprudence also relies on the 14th amendment.

    Whatever oujr founders might have intended, the reconstruction republicans specifically intended that the 14th amendment would extent the right to own guns individually to blacks in the south – as an absolute necescity to defend against their former masters, and former confederates.

    The 14th amendment is about as “anti-racist” as you can get, and it was also pro private Black ownership of firearms.

  5. If it were not for the terrible decisions to make black studies, gender studies and their ilk into courses and departments in institutions of so-called higher “learning,” there would not be such drivel. Gone are the days when one needed serious scholarship, critical thinking skills and unbiased teaching to teach others – rather than to indoctrinate them with one’s lefty personal opinions! Now, just view everything at every time in every way to be racist or sexist or ??? as a way to spread personal views about any and every subject.

  6. Below is the sole, singular and definitive rationale for the 2nd Amendment.

    “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

    – Declaration of Independence, 1776

    1. It never ceases to amaze me how much Leftists hate the very people who guaranteed their freedom 220+ years ago to hate them.

  7. As always the longer the thread goes, the more truth dominates, and the whiny leftist slink of to lick their wounds. Not to worry, the next post they will be back with their fact free talking points given to them by their betters.

    1. LOL!

      No, us lefties have a life besides worrying about what goes on this blog constantly.

      Unlike S. Meyer who practically cannot live without this blog which he needs for his daily affirmation of his ignorance.

      1. The simpleton (Svelaz) responds with an excuse. There is no excuse for being as stupid as you are.


      2. Then … don’t follow this blog! Surely there are other lefty sycophants a/k/a lickspittles that will whine with you about the same old stuff.

  8. “Anti-Blackness determined the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and has informed the unequal and racist application of gun laws.”

    Is it the unequal and racist application of gun laws in the US that is responsible for the fact that the preponderance on gun violence is committed by young black men against young black men?

    Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report found at USA Today titled:

    Young Black men and teens are killed by guns 20 times more than their white counterparts, CDC data shows

    The analysis, titled “A Public Health Crisis in the Making,” found that although Black men and boys ages 15 to 34 make up just 2% of the nation’s population, they were among 37% of gun homicides that year.

    “Gun violence has for the longest time been a public health crisis in the Black community,” said epidemiologist Ed Clark of Florida A&M University’s Institute of Public Health.

    Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report found at Brookings titled:

    Guns and race: The different worlds of black and white Americans

    The firearm homicide rate among black men aged 20-29 is about 89 per 100,000.To put that fact in some international perspective, in Honduras—the country with the highest recorded homicide rate—there were 90.4 intentional murders per 100,000 people in 2012. That includes all means, not just firearm homicides.

    All of the sensationalist (ie yellow journalism) reports in the world will not change these stubborn facts.

    1. Just think what could have been accomplished if BLM et al had focused those hundred million dollars of donations and the global attention it garnered on the root causes of black poverty and violence. Astronomically high rates of single motherhood, and high crime. That high crime chases away jobs faster than if those jobs were set on fire. Which happens anyway during the riots.

      Instead, BLM claims blacks are helpless victims of white oppression, and there couldn’t possibly be anything they could do differently to improve their circumstances. They advocate for criminals and against police. This leads to higher rates of crimes from shoplifting to murder, which chases more jobs away, and the cycle continues. Wash, rinse, repeat.

  9. No, the Second Amendment is about “Arms”–not “rifles. That’s what the Second Amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The evidence makes it obviously clear that Arms referenced both military and civilian use of weapons. Note the brilliant choice of the word “Arms.” The word is broad, transcending technology of weaponry. The writers knew that the technology of weaponry would change over time so that the law would not become obsolete or some relic of the past.

    The writers of the Fourth Amendment showed similar brilliance in their choice of the word “effects”: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The word “effects” was again selected so that the law would not become outdated by technology and the development of things not yet conceivable (like laptops, cell phones, etc.).

    But back to the Second Amendment, what did the word “Arms” mean at the time? Today the word “Arms” refers collectively to offensive or defensive weapons. The word’s meaning has changed little since it was first used seven hundred years ago. It’s definition has never restricted civilian use of military weapons, including when the Second Amendment was approved. The word “Arms” comes from Middle English and originated from the Old French word “armes,” which meant “weapons of a warrior.” This word dates back to at least year 1300. “Arms” also originates from the Latin word for “weapons,”arma.” This word was also first used in the 14th Century.

    Both of these Amendments were written to protect the people from the Government. The writers well knew that an Authoritarian Government, like the leftists are creating today, is a grave danger to freedom and liberty.

    1. This is so true reason for the 2nd Amendment. As a military retired officer, when I was both drafted and later sworn in as a commissioned officer, I swore to protect the US Constitution from All Enemies, Both Foreign and Domestic. Today, the USA has many enemies that are Domestic. We must protect the rights of all Americans and those of the people of the World. The citizens and the World depends upon the US of America to maintain it’s position in the World and the 2nd Amendment, along with the 4th, 9th and 10th are all essential to our Freedom.

  10. Does anyone really know the intent of the great minds that formed this Republic? I’ll say not to any degree of certainty. There were many discussions and debates about the issue of Slavery in the Colonies at the time, also in Britain, Spain and Europe as a whole. Slavery was banned in Vermont in 1777, The Congress passed legislation banning slave trade in 1808, other countries followed suit during next 80 years until Brazil abolishes slavery in 1888.

    Referring back to my first sentence Hamilton wrote in Federalist 29 regarding Militia these pointed words “If there should be no army, whither would the militia, irritated by being called upon to undertake a distant and hopeless expedition, for the purpose of riveting the chains of slavery upon a part of their countrymen, direct their course, but to the seat of the tyrants, who had meditated so foolish as well as so wicked a project, to crush them in their imagined intrenchments of power, and to make them an example of the just vengeance of an abused and incensed people?”, illustrating his disdain for Slavery.

    Trying to reframe the debate about slavery and equate it to gun control is nonsensical or more bluntly absurd. Is the left trying to cause division to introduce Tyranny for control of society, or just confusion of their feeble mind as a path to some utopia?——————

    I’ll again quote Hamilton from Federalist 9 “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” “A firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated. From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty. They have decried all free government as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over its friends and partisans…”

    God Bless the greatest nation on Earth.

  11. The last time I was in my local gun store there were at least a dozen black people waiting in line; the only non-black (Native American) I saw was the person waiting on the customers.

  12. Racism and ‘anti-racism’ are two sides of the same coin with a continuously changing, undefined, definition. It’s no wonder Leftists are so unhappy – they keep changing their own rules and can never settle on any of them.

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